Rare radio recordings offer opportunity for Williams heirs
Nashville Business Journal - by Cynthia Yeldell Nashville Business Journal
More than 50 years after legendary country crooner Hank Williams recorded "Jambalaya" and "Your Cheatin' Heart," lost versions of those hits -- along with previously unreleased songs -- have opened up a substantial stream of cash for his estate.
Williams' children, Jett Williams and Hank Williams Jr., inked an undisclosed deal with Time Life to release versions of 143 of their father's songs that haven't been heard since 1951 on Nashville's "Mother's Best Flour" radio show. It's the first of several potential business ventures for the family after winning the rights to the recordings in a landmark case against Polygram Records and Legacy Entertainment Group.
Ownership of the music allows Williams' estate to license the radio versions of the songs for use in movies and commercials or to other artists who want to re-record the songs -- without giving a cut to the record labels that have stakes in Williams' previously released recordings.
The family declined to say how much the Williams estate is worth, driven mostly by the licensing of his music and likeness, but says the newly found recordings will increase the value of his music catalog by 50 percent.
"Before, everything has been owned by the record company," Jett Williams says. "We have 140 versions of these songs, and we can do business now. The estate has never been in this position, and most estates have never had that privilege of owning their own records."
Chris Horsnell, a lawyer who represents the estate of Hank Williams Jr., says he's never seen an artist's heirs regain control of previously recorded material.
The Tennesee Court of Appeals ruled in 2006 that the elder Williams fulfilled his obligation for the radio show and the records were never intended to be reused.
Horsnell says the case opens the door for other artists from that era, depending on the wording of the original contracts. Contracts from the 1950s and earlier had no concept of how music could be used on television, the Internet and cell phone ringtones, all popular revenue streams today.
Shelved for decades, the Mother's Best recordings were almost thrown in the trash before a radio station employee salvaged them and handed them over to the Williams family. The estate then fought an eight-year court battle to establish ownership rights.
Time Life will release the 143 songs in installments over the next three years. The first box set comes out in October.
Mike Jason, Time Life's senior vice president of audio and video retail, called the release historic because it adds to Hank Williams' limited body of work.
A similar set of Johnny Cash songs released by Time Life in 2005 sold 100,000 copies.
But the Williams set is expected to exceed that because it includes new songs, Jason says. The Hank Williams music catalog sells a half million CDs each year, and Jason expects longtime fans as well as new ones to be interested in the Mother's Best collection.
"This is a special situation," Jason says. "I don't know if it could ever exist again."
Williams was found dead in the back seat of his Cadillac in 1953 at age 29. In the five decades since, he has become one of the most popular artists in country music history.
The Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, Ala., gets 30,000 to 40,000 visitors each year.
And the Hank Williams exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville has been so successful that the museum extended its original two-year contract by an additional two years.
After his death, Williams' estate was estimated to be worth less than $25,000, Horsnell says. And in the mid-1960s, the court estimated the value of his music to be virtually unchanged.
Today, the catalog and estate are estimated to be worth millions of dollars.
Williams' 213 registered works are played an estimated 6 million times a year in the United States alone, says Jerry Bailey, spokesman for Broadcast Music Inc. His catalog has 13 songs with more than 1 million performances.
Williams' songs remain a popular source of inspiration for new artists and have topped the charts when they were re-recorded.
Norah Jones sold more than 8 million records when she recorded Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart," Jett Williams says.
"Your Cheatin' Heart," released a year after Williams' death, has been recorded by artists such as Ray Charles and Elvis Presley. It hit the spotlight again in 1996 when it was featured in Pepsi commercial during the Super Bowl featuring a Coca-Cola delivery man.
Jett Williams says the release of the Mother's Best collection opens a big business opportunity for the estate to continue to build the brand. The estate is looking to deals that would create new merchandise related to the recordings.
But family members are careful to chose projects they think Williams would approve himself.
"Hank Williams sells himself," Jett Williams says. "He and his catalog have stood the test of time. He is as popular as he can be 50 years after his death."